The backlash against returning New Zealanders

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By Ani White.
This article was written for the Pandemic issue of our magazine. Subscribe here.

The COVID era has seen a shocking backlash against returning New Zealanders. Pedestrians have spat at those in quarantine hotels, talkback radio is rife with callers attacking returning New Zealanders, charges of up to $3,100 for compulsory quarantine have been introduced after pressure from the opposition National Party, an ActionStation petition against those charges received a backlash online.

Of course, many New Zealanders within the borders are legitimately scared in a situation of global pandemic. These fears are manipulated by political actors such as the National Party, and the various rising populist parties. However, it is worth examining why this manipulation works. In part the issue is a long-standing Fortress New Zealand attitude, often taken out on migrants and refugees, and now apparently extending to citizens of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

While some in quarantine hotels have foolishly broken quarantine, there are only two people who have illegally made a break, and there are also citizens within the borders of Aotearoa/New Zealand who have broken lockdown rules. There is no reason that proper quarantining of returning New Zealanders, with generalised testing, should lead to the introduction of COVID. In fact, cases identified in quarantine have been safely contained and  treated.

Some hold that after the sacrifices made by citizens within the borders of Aotearoa/New Zealand, returning citizens are opportunistically seeking a lifeboat. However, quarantine hotels are at least as restrictive as lockdowns, so returning citizens also make sacrifices. Returning citizens have also likely experienced lockdown overseas, or lost work. The attitude that sacrifices are limited to people within the borders of New Zealand is short-sighted. The moralistic psychology guiding this attitude is worth exploring.

There is also a racist undercurrent to the backlash against returning New Zealanders. As well as Maori and Pasifika, many are migrants to Aotearoa New Zealand and their children, who are New Zealand citizens. In July, after the government announced that it was considering using hotels in Queenstown or Dunedin as quarantine facilities, National MP Hamish Walker issued a press release claiming that up to 11,000 people were “heading to Dunedin, Invercargill, Queenstown from India, Pakistan and South Korea”. (Walker subsequently resigned in disgrace after he was caught leaking details of people with Covid-19 to the press to support his claim). Asian New Zealanders have experienced heightened racism,

Yet there is more to it than this, with the backlash also affecting returning Pākehā. The attitude can be understood through Freidich Nietszche’s concept of ressentiment, a fancy French word simply meaning resentment (but used in a specific way by Nietszche). With ressentiment, the basis of morality is the perception that somebody else is the source of the resenter’s problems. Although Nietszche was an aristocratic reactionary, and questionably called this instinct ‘slave morality’, the concept has some utility in understanding misdirected moralistic impulses. 

Where Nietszche’s concept of ressentiment can be problematic is that exploiters actually are responsible for many problems, and a politics based on that has some justification. However, moralistic resentment can also be projected horizontally, or downwards, onto scapegoats. Rather than perceiving their common interests, workers guided by pure resentment perceive other workers – such as refugees, migrants, the unemployed, and other social minorities – as having something they don’t. Often this is wildly inaccurate – for example, on a public Facebook post by the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign, somebody commented that resettled people in Aotearoa/New Zealand are given a free car and free housing. A purely resentful politics without any positive content can bleed into ugly populism, where poor and working class people (often ‘foreign’ or otherwise different) are blamed for problems they are not responsible for.

This involves a double-displacement of class struggle within Aotearoa/New Zealand. First, class struggle is displaced when New Zealanders move to Australia for better wages and conditions. Second, class struggle is displaced when workers who remain in Aotearoa/New Zealand blame the people who moved for their inferior conditions. The only way to improve wages and conditions in Aotearoa/New Zealand is to challenge capital, and blaming economic migrants does not help.

A common refrain is that returning New Zealanders must be economically privileged. However, this erases labour migration to Australia, including many Pasefika and Māori workers in hospitality and blue-collar industries. Although wages and conditions may be better in Australia, migrants are still exploited, and are often the first to lose work in a crisis. New Zealanders in Australia who don’t have Australian citizenship are not entitled to unemployment benefit or any other government assistance, which has forced many to return home. Economic migrants seeking higher wages may not all be dirt-poor, and may have opportunities others lack, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re super-rich, and can easily pay thousands of dollars for a five star hotel. Rather than simply dirt-poor or super-rich, many workers are somewhere in between. 

 Returning New Zealanders have not chosen to stay in five star hotels, they are forced to. It’s a relief that hotel charges do not apply to those returning permanently, but even people returning temporarily may be visiting family, which is surely legitimate even if family members are not dying (which is grounds for  compassionate exceptions, whereas simply visiting family is not). The idea that returning New Zealanders should be economically punished for visiting family is extraordinarily mean-spirited.

Privilege-checking of returning New Zealanders misses the point: travel restrictions have been ramped up across the board, and the actually-rich are most able to weather these restrictions. Processing of refugee cases was frozen soon after the outbreak of COVID, and densely packed refugee camps face a particular risk for spread of disease. International solidarity, rather than privilege-checking, is needed. This includes the need to develop Trans-Tasman connections between workers’ organisations. Resentful nationalism prevents the solidarity needed to improve conditions for all.

COVID-era nationalist resentment has precedent. The reaction to Hobbit actors unionising typifies these attitudes. Tech workers in the industry bought into the blackmail of Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers, showing the self-defeating nature of misdirected resentment. Nationalist workers fought for the right to be exploited under worse conditions than international workers – Aotearoa/New Zealand actors were simply fighting for the same rights as international actors working on the same productions, and Aotearoa/New Zealand workers in the industry were dismissively referred to as ‘Mexicans with cell phones’ (although tech workers were relatively well-paid). Union leaders such as Helen Kelly and Outrageous Fortune actress Robyn Malcolm were attacked by tech workers in public. Malcolm fled to Australia to escape the toxicity of the industry, which has more recently been underlined by revelations of sexism at Weta. Again, as with COVID-era fears, the situation was exploited by powerful actors such as studios. Peter Jackson managed to get the law changed so actors could not unionise, a restriction referred to as the ‘Hobbit law.’ However, workers are not blameless for buying into scapegoating, and these attitudes must be challenged.

As with the Hobbit case, COVID-era nationalists hold onto their misery, perceiving no hope of improving their own conditions. Resentments and fears are projected onto ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, now even including New Zealand citizens. The widespread message ‘be kind’ apparently does not extend to returning New Zealanders.


  1. mikebarton01 says:

    Good piece.

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